More MS news articles for June 2000

State health agency lacks legal source for marijuana tests

Lawmakers' latest request tossed back to Legislature

John Craig - Staff Writer

Spokane _ The Washington Health Department says it can't help clarify the state's new medical marijuana law because it can't study the drug without getting busted.

State Secretary of Health Mary Selecky has rejected a request by 28 lawmakers for the Health Department to try again to set up medical-marijuana research the Legislature called for in 1979 and again in 1996.

"The study was never performed because we were unable to secure a legal source of marijuana," Selecky said in a recent letter to legislators, including Spokane Sens. Lisa Brown and Bob McCaslin.

Federal law prohibits marijuana use even in states that have authorized medical use, and federal officials have the only legal supply for researchers.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse provides marijuana for research, but Selecky said federal research guidelines "appear to be set up to provide legal marijuana only for the development of new, non-smoked, pharmaceutical products."

Selecky said developing a new marijuana-based drug would be enormously expensive, inconsistent with the Health Department's mission and unlikely to solve the problems with Initiative 692, which voters passed in November 1998 to allow medical use of marijuana. Instead, Selecky tossed the issue back to the Legislature.

"It ... appears that the inadequacies of the initiative language on several important issues, such as identification of legitimate patients and caregivers and the definition of a 60-day supply, may require a legislative solution," Selecky said.

Initiative 692 says simply that, with a physician's approval, a person may have a 60-day supply of marijuana to treat "chemotherapy-related nausea and vomiting in cancer patients; AIDS wasting syndrome; severe muscle spasms associated with multiple sclerosis and other spasticity disorders; epilepsy; acute or chronic glaucoma; and some forms of intractable pain."

The law implies patients may buy marijuana on the street and says they may grow their own or have a "caregiver" grow it for them. But it doesn't say how much a 60-day supply is.

The question of how much is enough has been the most vexing issue for police, prosecutors and courts in several recent cases in northeastern Washington. Authorities have taken the position that medical marijuana users or caregivers must prove they aren't growing so much pot they have some left over for sale or recreational use.

There is no scientific answer to the question of quantity, said Janet Joy, a doctor of neuroscience and behavior who directed a National Institute of Medicine review last year on medical-marijuana research.

Joy's study found that limited research, much of it on animals, clearly shows potential for medical use of marijuana. However, the study also found smoking marijuana to be a "crude" way of delivering the drug, and one that delivers cancer-causing, fetus-damaging byproducts.

The report called for more research on medical marijuana but said the goal should be to develop an inhaler or some other rapid, effective way of delivering the tetrahydro-cannabinol (THC) drug contained in marijuana plants.

Joy said such research is getting started in Canada and the United Kingdom, where a 1998 study for the House of Lords came to many of the same conclusions as the U.S. study Joy directed. But little has been done so far in the United States.

Unless legislators or state agencies tackle the problem, the job of determining appropriate medical uses and quantities rests with courts in the half-dozen states that have passed medical-marijuana laws. The Washington Legislature has twice failed to pass bills directing the Health Department to conduct hearings and adopt regulations.

Even if state guidelines were in place, medical marijuana users would have to rely on the discretion of U.S. attorneys not to prosecute them under federal law. Federal prosecutors typically focus on large-scale drug dealers.

John Craig may be contacted at (509) 459-5429, or by e-mail at